Home Affairs Committee

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:23 pm on 21st July 2022.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 12:23 pm, 21st July 2022

I would like to start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this statement today. On Monday this week, as the Home Affairs Committee report, “Channel crossings, migration and asylum”, was published, the number of people who had made the dangerous journey across the English channel from France to the United Kingdom rose above 15,000 this year. Last year the figure was 28,500, and this year the Home Office predictions suggest that as many as 60,000 people could arrive on our shores on makeshift, leaky dinghies hardly worthy of the name of “boat”, wearing lifejackets more likely to drown them than save them.

In Dover recently, members of my Committee and I saw the arrival of two such vessels crowded mainly with men, but also with women and small children on board these potential death traps. At least 166 people have lost their lives in the channel since the Committee began its inquiry into channel crossings, with 27 of them drowning on a single awful day last November, yet despite the risk of dying, people still come. The day after those 27 people died, 40 more came. Witnesses we spoke to talked of making two, three or four failed journeys from the French coast, turned back by leaking boats or wind and waves, before finally reaching the British coast or being escorted to safety by British vessels, including the Navy and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Those journeys are fuelled by evil, criminal traffickers trading in human misery. Those who risk their lives, and sometimes those of their small children, are so desperate to come here that they are willing to take any risk.

Stopping those dangerous journeys must be one of the highest priorities of a civilised society, and the Committee supports national and international action to stop the criminal gangs preying on vulnerable people. The Home Office has asked for ideas on how to do that, and our report seeks to provide some clear proposals for a way forward.

Before I set out a few of our key recommendations, I want to thank the staff of the Home Affairs Committee for their sterling work, particularly our Clerks Elizabeth Hunt and David Weir. I also want to thank all the members of the Committee. Our membership has changed quite a few times over the course of the inquiry, including the previous Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). I also give a very big thank you to all those who contributed by providing evidence and personal testimony to the inquiry.

In the report, we conclude that there is no single magic solution to the problems posed by irregular migration, in a world where millions of people have been displaced from their homes by war, famine, local terrorism and economic necessity. We are clear that detailed, evidence-driven, properly costed and fully tested policy initiatives are by far the most likely to achieve sustainable, incremental change, rather than headline-grabbing initiatives lacking in a rigorous evidence base and with unclear costings. We agree that safe and legal routes for those in search of secure homes are essential to breaking the business model of the criminals who prey on vulnerable people. The UK spends £1.5 billion a year on its asylum system. We house asylum seekers and refugees in hotels at a cost of nearly £5 million a day. We agree with the Home Secretary that the asylum system is broken and unsustainable, but we do not agree that it was those who sought safety by crossing the channel who broke the system.

The Home Office urgently needs to reduce the asylum backlog. The number of people coming to the UK each year is relatively stable—around 48,000 last year—but the time taken to grant asylum or make another determination has steadily risen. We recommend addressing the work in progress caseload of 125,000 as a priority. That means hard, invisible grind; having enough trained staff who remain in their posts long enough to make a difference; effective IT systems; and swifter and better decision making. The most cost-effective way to cut the cost would be to have fewer people in the asylum system, and the most effective way to do that is to get people out of it more quickly through faster decision making; 449 days for the average decision is far too long. No child should wait 550 days—the average time taken—to find out what their future is in the foreign country they have come to.

International co-operation is also needed to tackle what is a worldwide problem. For us, that means better and more co-operation, especially with the French, stepping up joint working. However, we also recognise that the French themselves need to do more. One of the Committee’s key recommendations is to seek a deal with France to process asylum claims to the UK on French soil in reception centres, possibly on a pilot basis, and with a guarantee that those not granted asylum here would remain in France. We already have juxtaposed passport control, so the French are at Dover and the UK authorities at Calais, so such an arrangement does have a precedent, but we accept that it is politically contentious. The Home Secretary has, in the past, suggested that such a plan might draw more migrants to France in search of asylum in the UK. However, we believe that it should be seriously considered as one of a suite of policies, which, together, could make an impact on the current dire situation. It could prevent people from feeling the need to cross the channel unsafely in unseaworthy boats, and it could save lives.

The Committee also recommends seeking closer co-operation with the EU. Brexit meant an end to the Dublin arrangement for returning people to other EU countries when their claims were unsuccessful here. It was not perfect, with fewer returns than successive Governments wanted under that arrangement, but there are now hardly any such returns. The Minister told us that only five people who had crossed in small boats last year between January and November were returned. The Government’s hope of bilateral deals with individual EU countries has clearly not been realised.

Clearly, provision of safe and legal routes for refugees, a realistic recognition that the UK is neither the least nor the most generous host in Europe or in the wider world, and a willingness to co-operate fully with our nearest neighbours by sharing intelligence and equipment to identify and undermine people smuggling criminal organisations may not offer the eye-catching headlines, but they are most likely to work.

I wish to say something about unaccompanied children. The practice of placing unaccompanied children in hotels has resulted in an unknown number of children disappearing either temporarily or, in some cases, permanently. We recommend that the Government confirm urgently who is responsible for safeguarding these children and tell us what they are doing to prevent children, alone and potentially vulnerable, simply vanishing from sight into unknown hands and unknown futures.

We also make recommendations about the need to review the experience and the process that children go through when claiming asylum. Key recommendations include: concerns around age assessments; the right to legal advice; an adult to support a child through the process; and the rules around family reunion to be expanded.

Finally, I turn to Rwanda. We have not yet come to a firm conclusion on that policy. We expect to return to it as and when anyone is relocated to Rwanda. There is, though, yet no evidence that the Rwanda policy is deterring crossings. Last week, according to figures very helpfully published on the Ministry of Defence website, a total of 1,474 people in 39 boats came to the United Kingdom, and the trend is up over the past three weeks. There is also no clear idea about how much this policy will cost, or how many people could be relocated to Rwanda under it. Should it survive its ongoing legal challenges, we will return to it, but it is a very good example of why a fully worked out policy might work better than one that is announced before detailed planning has been done to work out how a policy will work and succeed. That is why the Committee recommends that the Home Office undertakes detailed policy work ahead of announcing such policies and plans.

We are also very mindful of the unusual step of a ministerial direction having to be issued in this case—one of only two in 30 years in the Home Office—as the permanent secretary was not satisfied with the evidence of the deterrent effect of this policy being value for money.

In conclusion, our report is the result of more than two years of evidence gathering in which the numbers crossing the channel irregularly rose from around 2,000 in 2019 towards, as I said, an estimated 60,000 this year. Urgent action is needed to stem this dangerous tide, and I commend the report to the House.